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Giving Sabbathkeeping Students a Break

Giving Sabbathkeeping Students a Break

One of the first things Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, did when he took office was to affix his signature to legislation important to tens of thousands of Sabbathkeeping students in the South American nation. Bolsonaro signed into law a measure guaranteeing those students, and others with freedom-of-conscience issues, the opportunity to request and receive alternatives to exams and projects scheduled for the Sabbath day.

The measure covers students at public (state-run) schools as well as private schools, colleges, and universities in Brazil. Military education, however, is not covered.

“I think this is a miracle,” one leader of a Sabbathkeeping denomination commented. “Moving forward, we will have greater freedom to be faithful to our convictions. We don’t feel this is a tool to fight, but rather that our just cause—in our case regarding Sabbath-keeping—has been acknowledged.”

Two years ago, Sabbathkeeping students in Kenya—one of East Africa’s powerhouse economies—were granted protection by the country’s top appeals court, which ruled those students must be exempted from classes and exams held on Saturdays. This has been a major issue in Kenya where, again, tens of thousands of students come from Sabbathkeeping families.

One year later, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda assured leaders of the country’s top Sabbathkeeping church that his government would consider protections for students caught between observing God’s command and progressing in school. President Museveni said the government would consider similar protections for those Christians who worship on Sunday and for Muslims who pray on Fridays.

These signs of progress—particularly in nations such as Uganda, Kenya, and Brazil—are important beyond the basic question of religious freedom. Advancement in life, especially in the face of poverty, often comes through achievement in school. And to advance in school, students have to maintain high attendance rates and participate in necessary exams, including national testing. By insisting that he take classes and exams on the Sabbath, Jiman Han, a medical student in South Korea had to go to court to assert his rights to get an education—and follow his conscience.

When it’s not possible to reschedule exams to an alternate date, moving ahead in education can present a profound moral dilemma for Sabbathkeeping students. National guarantees, the strongest of which can be found when a country enacts legislation to protect students, as has happened in Brazil, are an important way of guaranteeing equal opportunity for all.

Religious Freedom
People in the United States have decades of experience to help deal with such issues. Thanks to the immigration of Jews from eastern Europe and Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large constituencies were located in major cities, and educators soon learned the importance of accommodating those who observed the Bible Sabbath. Today, it is very rare for students not have their religious preferences considered.

And America’s burgeoning homeschooling movement has also enabled parents and students—at least through high school—to set their own schedules. For decades, administrators of the nation’s top two college proficiency tests have also worked to establish locations and means for Sabbathkeepers to take the test on an alternate day.

But it’s often a different story in other parts of the world. A lack of knowledge, religious prejudices, and even anti-Christian attitudes in some nations might color official responses to students’ requests to observe the Sabbath. Peer pressure can be a major challenge as well—especially for younger children and teenagers.

Those who do stand for the right of individual conscience, however, are following the lead of some teenagers who lived a long time ago. Daniel and his fellow Israelite captives in Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, determined they would follow God’s law, regardless of the personal cost. Even though they achieved high positions in the government, they each faced death because they valued God’s opinion over that of King Nebuchadnezzar.

If you’re in school—or if you’re the parent of a student—be encouraged by the examples of these young Hebrews who stood strong for what they believed. God’s got your back, and He can help resolve problems in ways we can’t even imagine!